Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

A Horse Inspires the Memory of a Child

From 1983

Listen: Deford Discusses the Death of His Daughter with Bob Edwards

Commentator Frank Deford talks about Afleet Alex, the horse that won the Belmont Stakes on Saturday. He says that race and that thoroughbred hold special meaning for him. Deford is the author of Alex: The Life of a Child.

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The owners of Afleet Alex, this year's runaway champion at the Belmont Stakes, have pledged to give some of their winnings to Alex's Lemonade Stand, a children's cancer charity. For commentator Frank Deford, the story of the winning horse and the young girl who started the charity brought memories of another race and another girl.

FRANK DEFORD reporting:

Most of you have by now heard the story of Alex Scott, a terrific little girl who died last year at the age of eight of cancer, how she has set up her own Alex's Lemonade Stand to raise funds for her disease and how the owners of the colt Afleet Alex carried on Alex Scott's cause. I, too, had a daughter named Alex and she, too, died at eight years, if from cystic fibrosis, not from cancer. And if you will permit me, this is a little story about her and Belmont and two horses.

This is the hundredth anniversary of Belmont, and much has been made of the many great races run there. Not much has been said, though, about the terrible one that took place exactly 30 years ago, a match race between Ruffian, the magnificent filly, and Foolish Pleasure, the colt who had won the Derby.

My Alex was four then, a year older than Ruffian, and she came to adore the filly. Ruffian was not only all that Alex wasn't--big and strong and healthy--but she was, like Alex, a girl. Maybe because she had to fight so hard, Alex was a budding feminist. And as the day approached for Ruffian's showdown against the male champion, she grew more and more excited.

Alex watched on television as Ruffian roared out of the gate and edged in front of Foolish Pleasure, but three-and-a-half furlongs out, going full tilt, she snapped a leg. She was so game. Ruffian tried to keep on running on three legs but there was no hope for her. They put Ruffian down the next day. Alex was devastated.

Last year when I heard about a promising colt with Alex in his name, naturally I took interest. I started betting Afleet Alex wherever he ran. And the more I heard about him, the more I liked him. His owners and his trainer, Tim Ritchey, and his jockey, Jeremy Rose, none of them had ever had a big horse before. Well, even more romantic, Afleet Alex was a small horse physically. And then I heard about how the horse's owners were supporting Alex Scott's lemonade stands and I heard about how they always invited the colt's breeder, John Silverstand, to be with them at the big races because Mr. Silverstand was dying of cancer. Afleet Alex, he said, was what kept him alive.

What a wonderful little story. What a wonderful little horse. But then AFleet Alex lost the Derby and I thought, `Hmm, maybe that was the end of it.' But, no, he won the Preakness, won it after all but falling to his knees going full speed. He alluded death on a track as sure as Ruffian had not escaped one. It was his game, a performance as I ever saw an athlete give, animal or human.

Sportswriters are not supposed to get all sappy, but by now I was enamored with Afleet Alex. And I'm sure I'm the only person in the world who put this together, but when he came past the finish line Saturday winning the Belmont Stakes under a perfect ride from Jeremy Rose, I suddenly remembered that Ruffian was buried right there by the flagpole in the infield.

There is something so special about Afleet Alex, and at least in one family, my own, there is the feeling that somehow the little Alex girl's gone and the little Alex boy, dodging tragedy then roaring again to glory, also shared this one with Ruffian.

MONTAGNE: The comments of Frank Deford. His newest book is "The Old Ball Game" about baseball in America at the start of the 20th century. He joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford
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